Whale Sharks and Bagan Fishing: A Ballad of Coexistence

Updated: Jul 21, 2021

Indonesia is the world’s largest archipelago, boasting more than 17,000 islands and about 5.8 million square kilometres of sea. The country harbours great biodiversity but sadly, has often been sacrificed in the name of development and economic growth. Few pockets of conserved biodiversity remain in the nation as the tide of development encroaches on many previously untouched forests, and the country is also known to be a notorious polluter of the oceans: ranking as the second-highest contributor of marine plastic pollution.[1] Yet all is not lost.

Far from Indonesia’s bustling metropolises, burgeoning middle-class suburbs, and bleak forests-bastardised-into-Palm Oil plantations in Cenderawasih Bay. A remote bay nestled in the eastern reaches of the archipelagic country, it is home to communities of indigenous Papuan fishermen who ply their trade using Bagans – a type of traditional wooden structure which is floated in the seas for net fishing. The fishermen would often commute from their beachside villages to the Bagans floating at sea, using nets to fish for squid, shrimps, and various types of fish.

A traditional Bagan

Aside from the company of their fellow fishermen on the same Bagan, these indigenous fishermen are also known to have a particularly chummy relationship with Whale Sharks that swim Cenderawasih Bay’s waters. By virtue of generations-old traditions, the communities of fishermen regard doing any intentional harm to the Whale Sharks as being taboo. The communities do not fear the majestic creatures, if anything, they cherish their presence and see them as harbingers of good fortune.[2]

The Bagan fishermen also regularly feed the Whale Sharks that have often become mutually affectionate with their human familiars. The Whale Sharks often intentionally approach the Bagans floating at sea, and oftentimes fishermen even form such a bond with these majestic creatures they give them nicknames for the ones they are familiar with. Not just limited to the fishermen, but other members of the community also often take the opportunity to interact with the Whale Sharks.[3]

Bagan fishermen feeding Whale Sharks

Cenderawasih Bay has been noted by scientists as being an anomalous region where Whale Sharks congregate year-round – something that only a handful of other places around the Pacific Ocean have also been designated as. This uniqueness in the region’s ecology has naturally been guarded by its remoteness and also the fact that the existing beachside communities of indigenous Papuans engaged in a harmonious relationship with the whale sharks.[4]

Oftentimes, indigenous communities’ modern urbanites view derisively as being ‘primitive’, have in fact proven themselves to be very adept custodians of the ecosystem they live in. This is very well illustrated by the Cenderawasih Bay Papuans who customarily try to form as good a relationship as possible with the Whale Sharks. The notion that Whale Sharks are harbingers of good fortune also comes with a grain of proven evidence. According to Marine Biologists, the presence of Whale Sharks in various ecosystems wherein they thrive, are very necessary to the preservation of the ecological balance of said locales.

Whale Sharks are known to feed on phytoplankton aside from the small fish and shrimps such as the ones offered by the fishermen of Cenderawasih Bay. By feeding on planktons that thrive in the warm tropical waters of the bay, the Whale Sharks prevent algal blooms from phytoplankton population explosions.

Algal blooms are often deadly for the marine ecosystems they occur in due to their massive consumption of oxygen. In the worst of circumstances, this lack of oxygen could kill off mass numbers of organisms from fish to coral reefs, and in the best of circumstances cause fish, shrimps, and other animals to simply move on and seek a better place elsewhere. Either of the aforementioned circumstances will surely be catastrophic to the livelihood of the Bagan fishermen.

Ecosystems are fragile, and the human factor has often become a force of damage when introduced to a previously untouched ecosystem. But as the Cenderawasih Bay fishermen have taught us, respecting, and protecting great naturally occurring organisms is not only good for the natural environment but also the sustainability of human communities.

Modernity, with all its conveniences and technological edge, has often been disastrous when embraced without much concern for the natural environment. We humans should see ourselves, instead of being excluded from the environment and ecosystem, as a part of it.


Written by Dzaky Putra Wirahman


Reference List

[1] The ASEAN Post Team, “Indonesia's Plastic Waste Problem,” The ASEAN Post, July 6, 2018, https://theaseanpost.com/article/indonesias-plastic-waste-problem.

[2] Edira Putri, “These Fishermen in Indonesia Have a Heartwarming Relationship With Whale Sharks,” Culture Trip (The Culture Trip, August 2, 2017), https://theculturetrip.com/asia/indonesia/articles/these-fishermen-in-indonesia-have-a-heartwarming-relationship-with-whale-sharks/.

[3] “Cenderawasih Bay: West Papua Indonesia,” RoamIndonesia.com, August 14, 2017, http://www.roamindonesia.com/west-papua/west-papua-attractions/cenderawasih-bay/.

[4] David Marsh 04/12/2012 at 8:19 am Comment Link, “The Whale Sharks of Cenderawasih Bay,” DIVER magazine, June 6, 2019, https://divermag.com/the-whale-sharks-of-cenderawasih-bay/.

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